THE HOPE OF A CHRISTIAN WORLD,
Part 2
Dr. Vic Reasoner

THE ARMINIAN MAGAZINE. Issue 2. Fall 2007. Volume 25. Page 1-2

The cultural transformation produced by Methodism

England had experienced three major political upheavals which affected the Church. Between 1661-1665 the anti-Puritan purge had turned nearly two thousand clergymen out of the Church. This amount to 20% of the entire English clergy. Then in 1665, the Great Plague came to London which took 20% of the city's population.

Between 1689-1690 the non-jurors were expelled. They refused to swear their allegiance to King William III, holding that James II was still the legitimate king. This resulted in the loss of four hundred more clergy and left the national church without both its left and right wings.

Then in 1716 a non-juring bishop, George Hickes, excommunicated everyone except non-jurors. In such a spiritual vacuum, latitudinarianism, skepticism, and deism emerged. In such an environment sermons were rated as "dull, duller, and dullest." High back pews were owned by village autocrats who would close the gate and eat cake and wine or something more substantial during the sermon. It was not uncommon for the congregation to either sleep or smoke during the sermon. Dogs were even brought to church.

John Thomlinson recorded in his diary that one rainy day the minister complained in the pulpit of the absence of the ladies, saying they were afraid of spoiling their fine clothes and so stayed home in bed. He wished he was with them, so that they could commit sexual immorality together. Other reports exist of women being propositioned for sex from the pulpit by the minister.

Will Durant concluded the half century from 1725-1775 was the most corrupt and merciless on English history. Violent crime skyrocketed. Prisons were overcrowded. Gangs roamed the city streets. The penalty for over two hundred offences, including the theft of items worth as little as five shillings, was death by hanging. Therefore hangings were frequent. Literature was immoral and there was nudity in the theater. The London Journal of April 23 and 30, 1725 reported the arrest of seven homosexuals. On May 14 three others were hanged for sodomy. Later issues contained similar reports.

William Grimshaw was ordained in 1732 and performed most of the duties of his parish. It was reported that he "refrained as much as possible from gross swearing, unless in suitable company, and when he got drunk, would care to sleep it out before he came home." He had adopted the deism of his day, but he was awakened by tragedy. By 1742 he had tasted the pardoning love of God. By 1747 Grimshaw was connected with the Methodists. John Wesley eventually said of him, "A few such as him would make a nation tremble. He carries fire wherever he goes."

Between 1783-1796, 814,000 slaves were imported into England. The nation was obsessed with gambling and drinking. In 1750 11 million gallons of gin were consumed. This amounts to two gallons of gin for every man, woman, and child. It was advertized that you could get drunk for a penny and dead drunk, with free straw to lie in until you sobered up, for two pennies. It was said that in London every sixth house was a gin shop. Sporting events were barbaric and included baiting animals, cockfighting, and immorality. All sports, including women's boxing matches, were opportunities for a wager. The prison system was also barbaric. Mortality statistics for London reveal that prior to the Methodist revival three out of four children died before their fifth birthday.

England had not seen a revival in four hundred years. Yet by the end of the eighteenth century England had experienced such revival that Sunday School had been introduced. England led the world in printing Bible and had created the first world-wide missionary movement.

John Wesley believed both in personal holiness and social holiness. He believed Christians should be separated from sinful practices, but not isolated from society. Wesley preached, "Christianity is essentially a social religion, and that to turn it into a solitary one is to destroy it." Charles Wesley expressed this emphasis, writing

To serve the present age,
My calling to fulfill
O may it all my powers engage,
To do my Master's will.

Writing in 1782 Wesley said, "We have reason to hope that the time is at hand when the kingdom of God shall come with power, and all the people of this poor heathen land shall know Him, from the least unto the greatest."

Through the preaching of the Methodists and the move of God's Spirit, England experienced a social transformation. William E. H. Lecky wrote, "It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that the scene which took place in that humble meeting in Aldersgate Street forms an epoch in English history." "The Halévy Thesis" states that the Wesleyan Revival prevented a social and political revolution in England like the bloody upheaval of the French Revolution. Elie Halévy concluded that England escaped the kind of social turmoil experienced in the French Revolution largely because of the evangelical revival in the eighteenth century. The effectiveness of the early Methodists in meeting the needs of the urban poor and organizing many of them into responsible communities made a notable impact on English society. Wesley's compassion for the needy spread until the entire complexion of the working class in England was changed. The revival was also a dominant force in mobilizing a group of influential political figures to crusade for reform. Included in this group was William Wilberforce, who devoted his life to the abolition of the slave trade. The last letter written by Wesley, only four days before his death was to William Wilberforce, "O be not weary of well doing! Go on, in the name of God and in the power of His might, till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away before it" [Letter, 24 February 1791].

According to Luke Keefer, Wesley decried miscarriage of justice in the court systems, corrupt election practices, and government policies that adversely affected the nation, especially the poor. He wrote vigorously in behalf of better prison conditions. He boldly called for the elimination of slavery and the slave trade. "One can hardly be thoroughly acquainted with the Wesleyan sources and be unimpressed with Methodist social achievements. If one compares the Methodist record from 1725-1850 to that of any other organized group of the period — sacred or secular, one cannot help but conclude that no other group can match it at the point of social service."

Stanley Grenz wrote, "It is not historical accident that the great thrusts toward worldwide evangelistic outreach and social concern in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were launched by a church imbued with postmillennial optimism."

Timothy L. Smith documented the social dimension of the holiness revival in America in his classic work Revivalism and Social Reform. After documenting the key role evangelicals played in attacking slavery, poverty, and greed between 1840-1865, in his final chapter Smith revealed the driving force behind this reformation was a postmillennial world view.

Charles Finney saw no contradiction between preaching the gospel and social reform. In his twenty-third lecture on revival he stated "the great business of the church is to reform the world — to put away every kind of sin." While Finney's Lectures on Revivals of Religion has been reprinted frequently under various titles, Donald Dayton points out that this section has been omitted because it did not fit the new premillennial mind set.

This dual emphasis on personal salvation and social redemption by early Methodists was picked up by William Booth and his Salvation Army. A great admirer of Wesley, Booth wrote In Darkest England and the Way Out in 1890. Booth wrote from a postmillennial framework and advocated the necessity of corporate sanctification. He believed that only a holy people could do a holy work and that work was to usher in the millennium. In 1889 Booth wrote an article, "Salvation for Both Worlds." Here he articulated his vision for the social and spiritual mission of the Salvation Army.

Booth often referred to the approaching millennial kingdom, as "the good time coming." He asserted that

A genuine Salvationist is a true reformer of men. He alone is a real socialist, because he is the advocate of the only true principles by which the reformation of society can be effected. His confidence for the future is not based alone on the theories he holds,…but in that Millennial heaven…to him, the millennium is already in a measure, an accomplished fact.

William Booth worked to realize the kingdom of God on earth. He was motivated by the possibility of the redemption of the world. This motivation was based in large measure on his understanding of eschatology, which to him was measured on a global scale with a global mandate. He explained,

"Salvationism means simply the overcoming and banishing from the earth of wickedness, inward and outward, from the heart and life of man, and the establishment of the principles of purity and goodness instead."

Word and Deed, the Salvation Army journal declares that the Booths "were committed postmillennialists who believe that they were commissioned by God to win the entire world for Him and establish the glorious millennium here on earth before the Lord's return." Christianity Today editorized that,

"Booth believed Christians would usher in a thousand years of freedom from poverty and misery. After that, Christ would return. But though he had a social vision, Booth passionately believed that the foundation for that new society was saved and sanctified individuals."

Yet George Marsden wrote that between 1900-1930 there was a "great reversal" among American evangelicals and the shift was toward premillennialism. Marsden demonstrates that the influence of dispensationalism upon the nineteenth century holiness movement shifted personal sanctification from the ethical to the experiential. Sanctification became something mystical and passive which tended to reduce Christian involvement in political activities. According to Rodney Reed, by 1930 the holiness churches had abandoned most of their social concerns and this coincided with the ascendancy of premillennialism.

In 1878 William E. Blackstone wrote that premillennialism "gives us a view of the world, as a wrecked vessel, and stimulates us to work with all our might to save some." C. I Scofield declared that not one of the Apostles was a reformer. Joseph Seiss declared, "The Gospel, as now preached, is not, and in the present order of things never will be, triumphant."

The results of this view have been devastating. "Wesley's plan was to save the ship and not simply to take off a few souls from a doomed vessel, as premillennialism suggests." After quoting Dwight L. Moody's declaration that he looked at the world as a wrecked vessel and commenting on evangelicalism's social irrelevance, James Engel wrote,

"What a contrast to John Wesley's vision of the church as a body "compacted together in order, first, to save each his own soul; then to assist each other in working out salvation; and afterwards, as far as in them lies, to save all from present and future misery, to overturn the kingdom of Satan, and to set up the kingdom of Christ."

Recovering the hope of Methodism

Contrary to dispensationalism's pessimism, the death of the Church has been greatly exaggerated. Ralph Winter said the vision of world evangelism has been "poisoned by pessimism." According to Peter Wagner, "We are in the springtime of Christian missions." Patrick Johnstone has demonstrated that the growth of the church today is on a scale that is unique in the history of the world.

Richard Watson, the father of Methodist theology, preached on "The Remedy of the Misery of the World."

The Christianization of the world is not a novel thought. It is the plan of God. We expect success because it is God's plan. We expect success because to us a son is given. There is nothing strange about the conversion of the world when we read, Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Bishop Jesse T. Peck wrote in The Central Idea of Christianity (1856),

Finally, we express the firm belief that this grand central sun will shine out with a light which shall be clear, steady, increasing and ineffably glorious, and at length fix upon itself the gaze of the world. It is destined to become the one attracting force which will produce and explain the unity, power and splendor of the universal church when "the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea."

Bishop Edmund S. Janes wrote in 1851,

A holy Church would soon make a holy world. If the Church were "without spot, wrinkle, or any such thing," her light could not be hid. When the Church puts on her entire strength, her influence must be triumphant in the world. When her hearts, and hands, and means, and influences are all devoted to God and his cause, her aggressive movements will be mighty, will be world-saving.

As we reexamine the hope of Wesleyan eschatology, there are two problem areas: their historicist approach to the book of Revelation and their futurist understanding of the millennium. Yet it is not necessary to agree on every detail in order to turn from pessimism and return to hope.

We cannot return to the historicist approach to the book of Revelation. This approach, based on the day-year formula was once held by all Protestants. While Daniel 7:25; 12:7; Revelation 11:2-3; 12:6, 14; 13:5 all speak of 1260 days, 42 months, or 3˝ years, these days were interpreted as representing 1260 years. Originally this block of time was thought to span the whole of Church history. It was also used to calculate the rise and fall of Popery, the establishment of the millennium, the length of the millennium as 360,000 years, or the second advent of Christ. This was the basis of William Miller's predictions in 1843, then in 1844. However, Miller was premillennial and Methodists were postmillennial. Thus, Methodist commentators used this formula to calculate the beginning of the millennium. Although George Bell prophesied that the world would end on February 28, 1763, Wesley recorded in his Journal that he "went to bed at my usual time and was fast asleep about ten o'clock." Bell soon left the Methodist connection.

Johann Albrecht Bengel, who combined premillennialism with postmillennialism by teaching that there were two millenniums, set a date for the beginning of the millennium at 1836. He expected a final papal Antichrist to be overthrown in 1836. Wesley utilized Bengel in his notes for the book of Revelation, but in a 1788 letter to Thomas Carlill he disassociated himself from this view, stating that he had no opinion on the subject.

John Fletcher once wrote a letter to John Wesley in which he predicted the return of Christ between 1750-1770. However, this was not the end of the world, since Fletcher probably followed Bengel in holding to a double millennium, followed by Christ's third and final return.

Thomas Coke felt that the final overthrow of Islamic, Papal, and Infidel [French] powers would come about 1866. Adam Clarke calculated the fall of Islam to occur in 1902 and the fall of Roman Catholicism in 2015.

However, this was not a major emphasis within Methodism and in defense of Methodist commentators, they did not predict the Lord's final return on this basis. Rather, as postmillennialists, they used the day/year formula to predict the inauguration of the millennium, which was usually connected with the conversion of the Jews. Yet time has proven this historicist approach to be wrong, leaving the two major options as a preterist or futurist approach to the book of Revelation. It is significant that Four Views on the Book of Revelation does not include a defense of the historical approach because "for all practical purposes, it has passed from the scene." In the Introduction to The Great Tribulation: Past or Future? Thomas Ice writes, "The debate is shaping up as a showdown between preterism and futurism." No Methodist commentator has adopted a futurist position. And it was Milton S. Terry, a Methodist professor, whose reprints have been instrumental in the revival of the preterist position.

Yet the early Methodists did hold to a future millennium. Among postmillennialists there are two options. While the consensus of Methodist commentators has always been there would be a future conversion of Israel which would mark the beginning of a millennial period, yet I believe they were misled by their assumption of the historicist interpretation of Revelation. It was natural for Methodists to see the millennium as coming at the end of the historical period which they thought the book of Revelation covered. A second option is to understand the millennium as figurative language describing the kingdom. Therefore, the millennial period and the kingdom are synonymous and realized in the present age.

Perhaps a more consistent Wesleyan conclusion is that the millennium began with Christ's first advent and extends to his second advent. The creation of a distinct category for the millennium cannot be justified based on only one passage of Scripture which is notoriously difficult to interpret. If the first resurrection is the present possibility of regeneration, then the millennium is also a present reality. Revelation 20:2 associates the beginning of the millennium with the binding of Satan. This binding can be understood, not as a total cessation of Satanic influence, but that the saints, and not Satan, now have dominion.

This realized eschatology overlaps with amillennial eschatology. However, it should be understood that this term did not originate until the 1930s. The bigger hermeneutic question is whether the millennium is to be understood literally or symbolically. All postmillennialists are amillennial in the sense that they deny chiliasm or the literal earthly reign of Christ. And all amillennialists are postmillennial with regard to the timing of Christ's return.

These secondary issues need not hinder us from embracing an eschatology of hope which understands that the kingdom of God was established initially at Pentecost and that it progressively advances across history through the preaching of the Gospel which calls us not only to a holy love toward God, but toward our neighbor. Donald Bloesch concluded,

We need to recover the postmillennial vision of a church on the march, without succumbing to any kind of utopianism or false romanticism. Charles Wesley displayed this kind of faith when he wrote in 1749 in celebration of the revival:
Now it wins its widening way:
More and more it spreads and grows,
Ever mighty to prevail;
Sin's strongholds it now o'erthrows,
Shakes the trembling gates of hell.

This is an edited form of a paper presented November 15, 2006 before the Wesleyan Study Group of the Evangelical Theological Society, Washington, DC.



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